Blurring the Boundaries: installation art at Worcester

“Blurring the Boundaries?” Well, maybe, but the new exhibit at the Worcester Art Museum highlighting installation art of the last quarter century doesn’t seem nearly that ambiguous. To be sure, the exhibit features plenty of provocative, even fascinating material, but, in contrasting it with the occasional piece that simply doesn’t work, “Blurring the Boundaries” actually serves, in some ways, to cement them. Which may in fact be just as valuable a service.

Organized by the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, from which the lion’s share of the pieces are taken, “Blurring the Boundaries” collects 19 works. Its aim, to trace the importance of installation art as one “of the most important and exciting developments in artistic practices during the last three decades,” is a noble and much-welcomed one. Indeed, the installation as an art form makes a lot of sense. By the 1960s, Abstract Expressionism had reduced the two-dimensional canvas to form and action so drastically that even its own figureheads had begun to repeat themselves. Installation art thrust itself in the opposite direction, offering three dimensions and, in doing so, involving the viewer in this form and action.

Given these possibilities, it’s surprising (though not pointedly negative) that much of the installed work projects a sense of stasis. The first two artists represented are installation – and minimalist – trailblazers Carl Andre and Dan Flavin; both adhere to minimalism in a strict, geometric sense. Andre’s Magnesium-Zinc Plain, a square checkered by smaller square panels of the materials detailed in the title, is particularly Cartesian, Flavin’s rectangular array of neon light Untitled (to Marianne) not terribly far behind. These are two important pieces in the chronology of installation art, but both seem, and in fact are, almost paper-thin: almost thirty years after their creation, they already seem a bit dated.

Dating and chronology are, in fact, major themes in the presentation of the exhibit. The museum made the interesting decision to intermingle a few of the installations with the considerably older permanent galleries, perhaps to steer some works clear of the glare of “modernism.” To this end, a piece constructed of modern-day detritus looked positively archaeological in the Egyptian room; a fluorescent light covered in an iconic shroud inhabited the Medieval galleries.

This decision may be just as pragmatic as it is idealistic. The museum has, unfortunately, limited space, a fact which becomes all too apparent in exhibiting a show as space-intensive as this one. In more than one instance, works were cramped together, thereby reinforcing the dominance of the museum and reducing the impact of the individual pieces. This is a difficult, if not impossible, problem to circumvent, and museum officials should not be blamed. They should be blamed, however, for allowing two pieces to be out of commission during the visit. Tony Oursler’s riveting Don’t Look at Me rests heavily on an especially harrowing projection of a distorted face; without the projector running, though, the piece lost its focus. Even more embarrassing was the curation of Louise Lawler’s installation, a work which relies heavily on a placard that was nowhere to be found. To leave two pieces in a 19 piece exhibit incomplete is remarkably frustrating.

Still, the remaining installations provided plenty of grist for interested parties, including a pair of works building on Flavin’s experimentation with light and electricity. The piece situated in the Medieval wing, Sarah Seager’s Panacea, echoes the rectangular exactitude of Flavin’s work, but fails to add much new to the equation. The museum described it as both “mysterious and mundane,” a couplet that seems silly but works quite well with this piece: it’s initially captivating but ultimately pedestrian.

A considerably more captivating extension of Flavin’s work with light can be found in the exhibit’s main gallery, although James Turrell’s Stuck Red would fit wonderfully nest to sublimists Mark Rothko or Victor Turner. A curtained, irregularly shaped room lit by a vertical strip of brilliant red light, Stuck Red holds a surprise as the viewer approaches the light: the light emanates from another small room that one can look inside. The work goes against stereotypes of modern art: it strives for an epic quality that few would expect. It might not totally connect on that level, but it affects the viewer’s perception of color in truly unique fashion.

If Turrell’s piece reaches back to Romanticism, some of the exhibit’s strongest works are those that build on pre-20th century art. Chief among these is Heaven and Earth, a piece by video art vanguard Bill Viola, who once recreated the Renaissance subject of Mary and Elizabeth’s meeting in stirring slow-motion in The Greeting. Two vertical video screens face each other with little space in between: the top screen shows Viola’s mother in a hospital bed not long before her death; the other, the birth of his child nine months later. Viola’s great move is to position the screens such that one image reflects off the other, creating an eerie Madonna and child, one step removed. It’s one of the only pieces in the exhibit with a clear narrative strain, and the juxtaposition of this admittedly simple life-and-death rumination with a thoroughly modern design is surprisingly affecting.

Viola works here on a distinctly personal level; effective installations from Chris Burden and Ann Hamilton take a more political stance. Burden is given to bombast – in the disturbing Shoot he actually had himself shot in the arm – and The Reason for the Neutron Bomb is no exception, an arrangement of 50,000(!) “mini-tanks” (nickels topped with matchsticks, cleverly) in front of the title phrase, painted on a wall. Hamilton has quite a large-scale vision herself: her Linings comprises a large shed-like room lined with water-logged texts of environmentalist John Muir, floored with panels of wild grass. A small television screen at the back of the structure depicts a mouth filling up with water. In both cases, the artists refresh the dangerous genre of political art: Burton’s piece draws its name from the mouth of a government official explaining a 50,000 tank discrepancy in favor of the Soviet Union, while Hamilton parallels NEA struggles of the 1980s with familiar man vs. nature iconography. The successes of these works can be traced in large part to their breadth, a sprawl that speaks to passionate belief.

The exhibit’s lesser works provide neither sprawl nor passion, settling instead on rather stale reproduction. Alexis Smith’s Men Seldom Make Passes at Girls Wearing Glasses is a well-crafted work, but it is little more than an unenlightening collision between Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe obsession and Barbara Kruger’s clever sloganeering. Similarly, Robert Gober’s Drains, a drain positioned in the museum wall (other, worthier works feature drains in wax legs and whole bathtubs), makes no bones about its Duchamp allusion, nor does it force us to ask any “is it art?” questions that Duchamp and Rauschenberg haven’t covered thoroughly.

In the end, though, the lesser pieces prove elucidating in their own way, giving the exhibit an authoritativeness in asserting where modern art is at currently. Blind reductionism and replication doesn’t lead anywhere; viewing “Blurring the Boundaries,” I got the feeling that addition and grandeur, of all things, are the abstract nouns of the moment.

“Blurring the Boundaries: 25 Years of Installation Art” runs through January 3 at the Worcester Art Museum. It’s a flawed but worthwhile opportunity to catch up with an increasingly important movement in late 20th cent
ury art